So long and thanks for all the clicks | Dean Burnett

On 31 July, 2012, the very first Brain Flapping post appeared on the Guardian website. Exactly six years to the day later, here’s the very last one.

To confirm, the Guardian is shutting down the science blog network, which includes Brain Flapping. Nothing personal, just more fallout from the ever-challenging modern media environment. And let’s be honest, what began with the Guardian boldly introducing a regular blog that took a more light-hearted, amusing/surreal look at science has, over six years, resulted in over 15 million hits, abandoning of the day job, two book deals, countless TV and radio appearances, and major Hollywood endorsements. Ergo, it would be a bit rich for me to claim to be hard done by.

It’s been quite a ride. The Brain Flapping archive will remain on the Guardian site, but there’s a lot to wade through. So, for posterity, here are the stand-out moments in many years of increasingly weird and unlikely science blogging.

A miserable looking woman walks across Lambeth Bridge in the rain

Like many a working week, Brain Flapping began with a particularly miserable Monday… Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

The Blue Monday saga

My first piece for the Guardian was about my many embarrassing experiences with the infuriating media-friendly nonsense of Blue Monday. It went very well, as affixing the Blue Monday nickname to the supposedly most depressing day of the year was still a “popular” thing back in 2011. No doubt this was a big factor in the creation of Brain Flapping.

For a while, I was the Blue Monday guy, revisiting the issue multiple times year on year. I’m even mentioned on the Wikipedia page for the phenomenon. However, interest in the nonsense seemed to ebb, and eventually it seemed like my constant complaining about it was actually keeping it going by drawing attention to it. Not wanting to cause my own Streisand effect, I let the matter drop. A wise move, given how every day is a contender for “most depressing” in 2018.

Brian Cox

Be careful when you make fun of Brian Cox, even in jest. A lot of people out there love Cox. Photograph: Stefano Guidi/Zuma Wire/REX/Shutterstock

The wonders of reading before you react

One of the posts I’m most proud of is this spoof review of Brian Cox’s TV show Wonders of Life. It was meant as a sendup of some in the science community who reacted negatively to the news that Cox, a physicist, would be hosting the show. I found this reaction dispiriting. Many were confidently asserting that the show would be rubbish, despite having never seen it. Scientists making bold claims based on no evidence isn’t the best look, I felt.

Hence, I wrote the article, in which [spoiler warning] I pompously and snidely dismiss Cox’s show, only for it to become apparent half way through that I’m mistakenly reviewing It’s a Wonderful Life, the 1946 Frank Capra film, as if it’s a science documentary, destroying my credibility but ploughing ahead with my predetermined conclusions regardless.

It was the reactions to the piece that really made it. Countless people haranguing me for attacking Brian Cox or not knowing what I was talking about, even leaving comments to this effect, thus blatantly revealing they’d not read the whole piece. To this day I still get angry emails from Brian Cox fans, despite the professor himself tweeting his support of the piece and appreciation of the joke.

I’ve used this “put the big reveal at the end of the article” strategy a number of times since, but it’s never been as fun as that first time.

Nazi leader Adolf Hitler makes his first radio broadcast as German Chancellor in front of a radio microphone.

Who knew Hitler was so popular? Apart from everyone who lived through 2016, that is. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Leave Hitler alone!

Feels weird to say, but the first “breakthrough” piece for the Brain Flapping blog, which reached the number one “most read” slot on the Guardian site, was a defence of Hitler. Sort of. It’s actually a critique of that well-worn sci-fi trope where whenever someone is able to travel through time they will immediately attempt to kill Hitler.

When the article went viral, I figured it was because other peoplewere similarly tired of that familiar plotline. But now, in the post Trump and Brexit era of 2018, I worry that it was due to hordes of enthusiastic Nazis online who thought I was arguing their cause.

Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society.

Robin Williams deserved better. Photograph: Touchston/Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock

The loss of Robin Williams

On the morning of Tuesday the 12th of August 2014, I logged on and discovered that Robin Williams had taken his own life. This obviously prompted copious emotion and reaction in the media, but it was bleak just how quickly the accusations of him being “selfish” surfaced, as they always do.

I was working for a psychiatry programme at the time, and my own qualifications and experiences meant I know full well that this is a ridiculous accusation. I remember thinking “If only someone in the media would point this out”. I then realised that I was someone in the media, so I could do it. Two hours later, I’d written a concise but heartfelt explainer about why accusations of selfishness are so wrong and hurtful. I submitted it, and thought no more it, expecting it to get lost in the high-profile homages to Williams. Still, at least I’d done something.

Twenty-four hours later, it had been read nearly two million times and counting. It remains by far my most successful piece to date, and certainly got me noticed by more high-profile names and platforms.

It’s somewhat bittersweet to say that my later writing success was the result of Robin Williams’ passing, but there it is. As such, I’ve really tried to warrant the boost this post brought to the blog. I’ve been told by many that Brain Flapping has become a reliable source for objective, understandable, non-stigmatising coverage of mental health issues in the years since. Others may disagree strongly, but it seemed the least I could do to try and make it that way.

People wait outside of a department store in Thessaloniki on 25 November, 2016. Long queues snaked outside department stores and roads were blocked near malls thousands of Greeks bucked falling wages and joblessness to join the country’s first-ever Black Friday shopping craze. In Athens, Thessaloniki and other major Greek cities, the queues formed before participating stores -- mostly tech and clothes chains-- opened at 0600 GMT. It was soon clear that most of the shoppers were youngsters skipping school to take advantage of up to 80-percent reductions in the sales. / AFP PHOTO / SAKIS MITROLIDISSAKIS MITROLIDIS/AFP/Getty Images

All of my friends lining up for guest posts. Photograph: Sakis Mitrolidis/AFP/Getty Images

So many guest contributors

When first given this blog, I was sure it was an admin error. Working class Welsh valley boys who grew up in pubs and went to rough state schools in economically depressed areas don’t work for the Guardian. And yet, there I was. Assuming it was only a matter of time before they realised their error and kicked me out, I figured I’d hold the door open for every oddball and misfit I could find so they could get some high-profile coverage too.

So, big thanks to six years’ worth of guest contributors, particularly Tanya Browne, Martha Mills, Taylor Glenn, Girl on the Net, David Steele, Phil Hoggart, Tauriq Moosa, Becky Alexis-Martin, Kayleigh Dodd, and all the others who chipped in and helped lighten my workload a bit when other aspects of life got in the way.

Admittedly, I didn’t tell them they were oddballs or misfits at the time. Maybe this is how they’re finding out? Should make my inbox interesting.

Two businessman arguing

Like 90% of online interactions, much of Brain Flapping’s output has been me angrily yelling at someone who is clearly not listening. Photograph: Erstudiostok/Getty Images/iStockphoto

So many enemies

As Spiderman’s uncle once said, “with great power comes great responsibility”. Granted, most people would never class having a niche blog in one of the often-overlooked sections on a mainstream news site as “great power”, but it’s more than most have got. As a result, wherever I can, I’ve tried to use this blog to tackle bigger names or groups peddling dodgy practices or pushing dangerous claims or ideologies. Debunking mainstream nonsense is par for the course for any science blogger worthy of the label, but I’ve spent a lot of time taking on particular targets before now, namely Susan Greenfield, Mark Boyle, Sergio Canavero, and, just this year, good old Johann Hari.

I don’t especially enjoy criticising others, but the things these people put out there have the potential to harm innocent people, potentially to a fatal extent, therefore I feel duty bound to take them to task, for all that it may do no good at all in the long run. Alarmingly often, I’ve seemingly been the only person critiquing such people.

Indeed, at several disconcerting points, much of my output has been rebutting pieces published elsewhere in the Guardian. I’ve been told I’ve made at least three other contributors cry via my rebuttals.

With great power…

closeup of a young woman using a smartphone

People who read things online are the best people. People who read MY stuff online are better again. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Thanks to the readers

I could say so much more, but I’m already straining the goodwill of the editors with the length of this piece as it is. Suffice to say, and a cliché it may be, nothing I’ve done or do would be worth a damn if nobody was there reading and sharing it. For their own (probably-disturbing) reasons, I’ve built up quite a following over the past six years, and it’s thanks to you lot that I made it this far.

It’s appreciated.

On to pastures new and greener now. Hope to see you all around.

All the best


Dean Burnett is contactable online, and his books The Idiot Brain and The Happy Brain are available now. He will no doubt keep popping up in many other places, like rising damp, or one of those weeds you just can’t kill off that affects the resale value of your house.


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